HOUSTON – It’s a con so big it has its own Wikipedia page.
The salesmen cruise parking lots and offer what they call “expensive home theater systems” for pennies on the dollar.
But many customers say those claims are as empty as the equipment is cheap.
The KHOU 11 News I-Team watched the salesmen as they fanned out all over Houston in trucks loaded with video equipment and stereos. Their products pitched by salesmen who won’t take no for an answer.
“He tried to put it in my truck to get my money,” explained Sandra, a Katy woman who was approached outside a store by the stereo sellers.
“Everything looked official,” explained Colin, an unhappy customer. “He had his company’s logo on the shirt. That logo said ‘Theatrical Design Company.”’ That’s the same company name that was on Colin’s receipt for the “surround sound” system he eventually bought.
“He had the FedEx packaging slip as if they had just received it,” recalled Colin.
The stereo and speakers also came in a slick-looking box which boasted it was part of the “High-Power Series.” Stamped on the side of the box was a nearly $3,000 manufacturer’s suggested retail price.
“It’s the best quality,” said Colin recalling the sales pitch. “He even said it was better than a BOSE system,” referring to a well-known series of music speakers.
To back his claims, the salesmen even showed Colin a website for the system he was hawking.
“That's what really got me to think, ‘Okay, maybe this is legit,’” he said.
Convinced, Colin paid $400 for the sound system. But when he got it home, he says he couldn’t believe his ears.
“It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” Colin complained as he played the stereo for 11 News. “I even hate to turn it on.”
As for the salesmen and his purchase, “He got me, he got me good,” said Colin.
He’s not alone. The Better Business Bureau gives Theatrical Design Company a failing grade.
“If you look at some of the consumer complaints, consumers were lied to,” explained Monica Russo from the BBB.
That includes a LaPorte man who says he was so dissatisfied with the speakers he purchased. Inside the small box, along with a 15 watt speaker, he says he found a sand-filled weight.
At least his system had all the speakers he was promised.
“I should have one, two, three, four,” explained a Katy woman who also bought a surround sound system from Theatrical Design Company. “I have one, two, three. I’m missing one of the small speakers.”
So why would anyone buy anything from the back of a truck?
Unhappy customers say the salesmen have their pitch down pat, which often explains that the supposedly expensive equipment is left over from a supposed installation job at a movie or home theater. So, they’re told, they can buy it for a fraction of the price on the box.
So the I-Team decided to check out one of their products and took some of that equipment to Vladimir Bazelkov, an audio electronics engineer who custom designs stereo equipment.
After thoroughly testing, checking and listening to the system, Bazelkov wasn’t impressed by the so-called “high-quality system.”
“No matter how much they sell this for, even $10,” said Bazelkov, “I probably wouldn't spend the money. I would return this running back to the seller if I could find the seller.”
So the I-Team tracked down some of the company’s salesmen as they made their parking lot pitches.
When we asked one of the salesmen, wearing his Theatrical Design Company shirt, about the BBB’s failing grade and complaints against the company, he had little to say.
“Weird man. Crazy,” said the salesman. “Maybe you should call my boss and talk to him.”
But it turns out, his boss, Gabriel Johnson, didn’t have much to say either.
“Get away from me brother,” Johnson said when the I-Team asked why he and his company were misleading customers.
The next day we heard from the company's attorney.
“It's not a scam,” insisted attorney Jed Silverman. “It's not a scam.”
He says despite the complaints and the police reports filed by customers, it’s not shady sales tactics, but simply people getting the wrong impression of the parking lot pitches.
“It's just an unconventional method that certainly could be spun into something that's unethical or not appropriate,” said Silverman.
The I-Team asked him if he believed anything unethical or inappropriate was taking place.
“I wasn't there each and every time,” Silverman admitted. “What I can tell you is that the equipment that they sell, it does work. With respect to when you’re purchasing something, you do have a responsibility to inspect it, and make sure before you complete the transaction that you’re happy with what you receive.”
Silverman points out that the company does offer a warranty on products it sells.
However, he admits that it only covers broken equipment.
If customers buy speakers and then aren’t pleased with the products, Silverman acknowledges they’re out of luck.